As hotels start to grapple with the practicalities of reopening safely in the wake of Covid-19, the big question is how the five-star market will deliver a luxury product – and what will their customers now expect? Rosalind Mullen reports
Indulgent spa treatments, experiential extras and attentive, personal service will pose difficulties for five-star operators as the Covid-19 shackles are slowly released and they look to offer a luxurious escape from the constraints of lockdown.
As The Caterer went to press, the government had yet to publish guidelines on what measures hotels should take in order to prove they can reopen safely from 4 July. While this is frustrating, industry body UKHospitality has released recommendations such as introducing key card deposit boxes in the lobby for disinfection of room keys, and leaving luggage and room service outside the guest's door. We can also guess that government stipulations may include PPE for staff who can't socially distance, Perspex screens between diners, handwashing stations and easy access to hand sanitiser.
While this sounds arguably unluxurious, there is already plenty of creative thinking among five-star operators. Take the opulent Hotel Sacher in Vienna, for instance, which reopened in May, offering up to four guests plus two children the chance to rent one of the hotel's 152 suites for breakfast, lunch or dinner, served by a personal butler.
The personal touch
Here in the UK, five-star hoteliers are equally confident that standards will not slip. Jannes Soerensen, general manager at the 73-bedroom Beaumont in London's Mayfair, says its staff and bespoke service are still key to promoting luxury.
"We will be physically distant but emotionally close. In other words, luxury service is not necessarily about ‘amenities' but about creating meaningful relationships with guests. Luxury service is about guests knowing staff are happy to see them. It is about personalising service so that the guests experience what they want and not what suits the hotel. All of that we can continue to deliver with social distancing measures in place."
Some services will be harder than others to deliver, however. For instance, before Covid-19, the trend for experiential hospitality embraced amenities such as spas. Again, government advice is awaited, but Soerensen is planning to review all spa treatments for feasibility, impose hygiene protocols such as masks and gloves for staff and stringent sanitising of treatment rooms, and ensure a bigger gap between appointments. The spa has just three treatment rooms and a "generously sized" resting area, so he believes maintaining social distance will be manageable. The gym is small, so visits will be by appointment only and limited to one guest – or two, if sharing a room. He is also looking to convert one or two bedrooms – occupancy depending – into temporary gyms to take any overflow of demand.
"We will continue to provide personalised experiences to guests, even within the parameters of the new hygiene regimes. I do not think guests will be offended by social distancing. They will want it and expect it," he says.
With strong personal connections with the guests – most of the staff have been here a long time and know our guests well – there is a trust and confidence
Soerensen, who hopes to reopen by the end of the summer, says the hotel already has a policy of reducing transaction time for guests. "In terms of check-in and other administrative formalities, we have long tried to circumvent [them] as they make no sense for the guest experience. We are thinking through the entire customer journey. What are their concerns at every point and how can we address them? How can we make them feel secure and comfortable?
"These initiatives are fluid, as scientific and government advice changes, but they will include the amenities we put in the limos that pick guests up to the welcome packs they receive in their rooms, the advice our concierge will give on the places we trust most in the city and the arrangements we will have with key destinations in London for private visits."
On a practical level, the Beaumont's help-yourself breakfast in the Cub Room will now be delivered to the room on request, and a bespoke service will include asking guests if they want their room cleaned and how often. "It may be that they do not want someone else in the room. We will take each guest one by one and personalise the experience to their needs," says Soerensen.
This chimes with the views of Stuart Procter, chief operating officer of the Stafford Collection (see case study). "All of our businesses have five-star health and safety. We have to be more cautious now, but we are in the bespoke world anyway. We already have clients with specific requests, such as the fact their newspaper mustn't touch the floor and so on."
Even so, the practicalities of delivering five-star service with social distancing will be a challenge.
Debbie Cappadona, general manager at the five-red-AA-star Palé Hall, near Snowdonia, says: "It will be complicated. Our first priority is ensuring our staff can work safely, staggering staff meal and break times, opening up new rest areas, ensuring adequate PPE and sanitisers and so on."
While uncertainty has led some hotels to initially reduce their F&B department – the Goring in London, for instance, has announced it won't reopen with Nathan Outlaw's Siren – Cappadona says Palé's two restaurants are large enough to keep diners two metres apart.
"Fortunately, we had already ordered screens, reuseable filtered masks and service gloves. The fine detail is yet to be worked out but, for example, our restaurant staff will wear safety gloves with service gloves over them – the service gloves will be changed for each set of guests and washed overnight."
She adds that while the "unobtrusive" clear screens between tables will have some impact, it is not a major one. "We feel they will add reassurance to the feeling of care and welcome to our guests rather than otherwise."
Fewer international visitors inevitably means hotels will need to retrain staff to multitask while having to lay off others.
"Owners Alan and Angela Harper have topped up the furlough salary out of their own pocket and borrowed money to ensure Palé's survival," says Cappadona. "Our staff are incredibly grateful and prepared to be flexible and learn new skills. We won't be taking on more staff initially, so departmental demarcation will almost totally disappear."
Inevitably, Covid-19 safety measures will alter the atmosphere in luxury hotels – there won't even be valet parking – but arguably, without them, guests won't return.
"I am certain guests will understand the measures we will take and be grateful for them. These will be explained in advance so they are relaxed and confident that we are doing all we can. Communication is key," says Cappadona.
And she believes the brand message is sound. "We are a five-red-AA-star Relais & Châteaux country house hotel in a beautiful and secluded location. We offer calm, quiet and warmth and that is what our guests are looking for. Obviously, overseas guests are likely to disappear in the short term as the 14-day quarantine kicks in, but we hope this will be offset by UK-based staycationers."
The property is also spacious and adaptable. "Palé is fortunate. We have large dining rooms and sitting areas. We can keep guests at a safe distance without running at a lower capacity. The only thing we may do is to redeploy a suite into an additional sitting room to allow for even more distance to give additional reassurance to our guests."
I am certain guests will understand the measures we will take and be grateful for them
Back in Mayfair, Soerensen accepts that while demand for city hotels may be lower initially, and that he expects at least a 40% year-on-year reduction in business in the first month of trading, he is confident that the Beaumont has advantages.
"Everything indicates that the leisure client will want to go to remote places. And not knowing when all those cultural and social attractions that make a big city so exciting will open – the theatre, concerts halls, museums and galleries – makes it harder to guess when demand will go up. But I do think that small, luxury boutique hotels, such as the Beaumont, are best-placed in this new environment to do well."
To back this up, he says the size and layout of the hotel means there are never queues at the front or concierge desks; reception knows the arrival and departure times of all guests; staff have oversight of the small lobby; and there is one "very adaptable" private dining room.
"Small hotels are flexible and easy to control," he says. "And with strong personal connections with the guests – most of the staff have been here a long time and know our guests well – there is a trust and confidence that guests feel and we will do everything to warrant that," he explains.
At the end of the day, says Soerensen, guests will want a hotel with their wellbeing in mind: "If you look at Maslow's hierarchy of needs, health, safety and security are fundamental and that is now enhanced. But once a guest trusts you to deliver that, then the other needs – a sense of belonging, esteem and respect, and self-actualisation – will still be important."
Case study: The Stafford Collection
Stuart Procter, chief operating officer of the Stafford Collection, has just launched his marketing campaign and is working towards an early August date for the reopening of both hotels – the five-red-AA-star Stafford London and the four-red-AA-star Northcote in Langho, Lancashire.
In the current climate, Procter is fortunate that 60% of the collection's guests are historically repeat and predominantly leisure. Even so, the 107-bedroom Stafford will initially only open its 14-bedroom Carriage House and 26-bedroom Mews Suites, which are in the courtyard of the main house with external entrances.
This makes economic as well as practical sense. While he is optimistic about business levels at the rural 26-bedroom Northcote – where 98% of guests are already from the UK – the Stafford relies on an international clientele.
"In London there is not a cat in hell's chance of filling that hotel, as 85% of our business usually comes in on an aeroplane. Therefore, we are only going to have 40% of our inventory available to start with."
While his team is being proactive, Procter is frustrated by the government's tardiness in announcing guidelines.
"The government has yet to decide what the rules and regulations are: is distancing two metres or one? Is quarantine happening – yes or no? Do you have to wear masks – yes or no? At the moment, the plan is that my staff will be wearing masks, but we are still waiting for guidelines," says Procter.
His hope is for one metre. "That is a game-changer," says Procter. "In Germany it is one-and-a-half metres and they have seen some return on their restaurants."
In the meantime, the team has been working with health and safety experts to plan their own measures.
"We were clean before we closed, but we will now give our housekeeping staff twice as long to clean rooms. We will have ozone machines, but we are waiting to hear whether rooms need to be left vacant between guests."
Other health and safety initiatives include offering guests the choice of a QR app to order food and drinks and another to check-in. The hotels already use plastic touchcards instead of keys, which are easily disinfected and can be thrown away. Crucially, the hotels will fit thermal imaging cameras to test the temperatures of guests as they arrive. These non-intrusive cameras will flag up if anyone has a raised temperature and the guest will then be gently informed that it would be in their interests to go home. Equally importantly, staff will be scanned when they enter the workplace.
As with many five-star hoteliers, Procter believes that luxury is underpinned by bespoke service, and as post-Covid-19 this will be more important to guests than ever, the Stafford will not be reducing its rates.
"Luxury hotels in London charge £500-£5,000 for a room, so guests are going to want an element of service at that price. It comes back to offering choice: you can have turndown or not; the room service trolley will be left outside your room and you can bring that in. We are looking at so many factors," he says.
Procter will use the hotel website to explain safety procedures. "Customers want to feel safe. At the end of the day they will have made the choice to come here. I think people will be glad to go somewhere for a break."
What the hotel consultant thinks
"Hotels have to be sure guests want to return. They have to be attractive to guests, and not just from a sanitation directive," says Christine Hodder, director of CHC Hotel Consultancy.
Outlining some of the post-Covid-19 preparations she has seen in four- and five-star hotels, she says: "Some are working on virtual videos, walking guests through the arrival process so there are no surprises. There will most likely be a 50% capacity in restaurants and scheduled timings for bookings to adhere to social distancing. Five-star hotels may increase the use of iPads for order-taking."
If that level of disruption to business wasn't enough, many expect the government to stipulate a delay in reletting rooms. "Hotels may decide not to take one-night bookings if they have a 24/48-hour desanitising delay. It would not be cost-efficient," says Hodder.
With quarantine and other factors, the international market is not expected to return until 2021. Although five-star hotels get most of their bookings from abroad, she anticipates they will not reduce rates.
"Luxury hotels have a high rate of repeat business. That clientele will want to see that the operation is being tightly controlled rather than worrying about their room rate," says Hodder. "If hotels cut rates it will take much longer to get them back up to where they left off pre-Covid-19. If they see the trend is changing, they may have to adjust their rates going into the fourth quarter, particularly as the corporate market may not return as quickly as leisure."
Before Covid-19, the buzzword was "experiential". This will be harder to achieve where spas, for instance, will have to be heavily monitored.
"The guest who may feel more hard done by when booking luxury accommodation is the one who wants to get the most for their money – who wants the works. But it will be a matter of health and safety first, creativity second," says Hodder.
One customer base that may not be put off by changes to service will be wealthy Middle Eastern guests, who tend to book suites and typically prefer room service and take-outs.
When it comes to marketing, Hodder warns that all hotels will be talking about their health and safety measures. "They will need to differentiate by getting their brand message out there and the experience and service changes the guests will enjoy," she says.
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